Saturday, April 29, 2006

Macarons, My Chocolate Nemesis

I am slightly obsessed with chocolate macarons. More specifically, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with these tempestuous things. I love them because they are so damn delicious to eat. I hate them because they are so damn difficult to get right.

But sometimes, the only way to deal with a phobia is to grab it by its horns. Or in a macaron's case, by its frilly feet. Call me stubborn, but since that ridiculously painful 48 hour ordeal, I've fought the urge to look back and prudently steer clear. Taking the bottom-up approach, I've been practising on the paler-skinned specimens, my favourite being the vanilla bean-flavoured ones, adapted from a recipe in Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook.

Earlier this week, I decided it was time to cross over to the dark side. It was time to tackle the recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé which had proved so totally traumatic the first time round (am I a sucker or am I a sucker?), this time armed with the humbling hindsight paid for in failed and otherwise foiled attempts. The results, while certainly still in need of refinement, were a damn sight nearer to what a chocolate macaron should look and taste like - crisp yet chewy, damply moist without being dense, smoothly domed on top but "footed" with a craggy circlet, and above all, intensely chocolatey. A few handy hints below which, while by no means complete, I found helpful in turning out consistent batches (for more complete details on the hows and the whys, see this thread and this thread on eGullet), whether chocolate or otherwise. Some will seem awfully obvious, but I've listed them nonetheless seeing as they helped goof-proof the process for me.

1.Sift everything. Twice Sift the confectioner's sugar. Sift the cocoa if making chocolate macarons. Sift the almond flour (and ruthlessly discard the larger bits caught in your fine-meshed sieve however much this may go against the thrifty core of your being - they will inevitably ruin the otherwise pebble-smooth domes of the end result). Having carefully measured out the required weight of each sifted ingredient, mix the three ingredients and sift the blend once more.

2.Weigh everything This includes the egg whites. Going by volume rather than weight is a dicey proposition - my 1 cup of slightly packed almond flour is most likely not equal to the cookbook's 1 cup of slightly packed almond flour, given as the definition of "slightly packed" is subjective to one's heavy-handedness. Accurate digital scales, on the other hand, don't lie.

3.The egg whites should be scrupulously separated from the yolks, placed in a scrupulously clean bowl, and ultimately whipped with a scrupulously clean whisk - the slightest taint of yolk or fat will prevent the whites from whipping to the correct consistency (just-firm and still glossy). The whites also benefit from an overnight "ageing" at room temperature before whipping - if the idea freaks you out, then simply ensure the whites are at room temperature before whipping.

4.Fold the batter carefully Easier said than done. That having been said, a little practice helps in gauging the right consistency. The idea is to judiciously deflate, knocking some (but not all) air out of the whipped whites whilst folding in the almond flour, confectioner's sugar and cocoa (if making chocolate macarons) mixture - this is what ensures you won't wind up with poufy peaky meringues as opposed to smooth-topped macarons. One fold of the spatula too many, however, and the batter will not only be a nightmare to pipe (it will spread too much) but will bake up rather heavy. A good test of whether the batter has been mixed to the right consistency is to pick up a little with your finger - it should form a gentle peak that quickly dissolves back into the batter. The importance of getting the consistency right will become apparent when piping (see 5).

5.Pipe consistently Again, gets easier with a little practice. Some find using a penciled template (circles drawn on parchment, parchment flipped over with circles acting as a guide) helpful. It takes a pair to form a macaron, typically a sandwich cookie. Uniformity of size and shape counts, and requires piping with even pressure and a steady hand. Size-wise, if you're after the gerbet-type as seen in those fancy Parisian outfits, aim for rounds 1-inch in diameter using a pastry bag fitted with a plain 0.5-inch tip. Pipe in staggered rows (this makes for more even baking) with at least an inch of space between rounds to allow for the natural spreading that occurs - each round, of its own accord and under its own weight, will spread to 1.5-inch diameter circles. Pipe holding the pastry bag upright and perpendicular to the parchment (or even better, Silpat-type baking mat; more on this in 8) lined heavy baking sheet, holding the tip 0.5 inch above (less, and the dome will be compromised, more, and the flow becomes less controlled - the idea is to hold the tip slightly higher than where the top of the dome should be) the centre of the traced or imagined circle, and let the batter flow out (which it will do without much prompting or squeezing) into a circle. Hold the tip steadily in place without spiralling. If the batter has been mixed correctly, you will have no problems with any peaks or points when finishing each round, which should naturally "melt" unto itself, much the way the little peak of batter did when you were testing the batch with your finger earlier. At any rate, finish each round by sealing off to the side so there's no unruly bump of batter to ruin the dome.

6.Let piped rounds form skins After piping, let the batter sit out at room temperature until skins form, about 2 hours. This makes for a nice, glossy, and smooth appearance. It also helps in the development of feet.

7.Watch the oven like a hawk Bake one tray of macarons at a time (unless, of course, you happen to have access to an industrial oven). Quite a few recipes start at a high temperature then turn the temperature down as soon as the baking sheet is in, with the oven door held slightly ajar. The temperature that's worked best for me is 160˚C (from start to finish, with a closed oven door). For macarons less than 2 inches in diameter, this takes anywhere from 7 to 13 minutes, depending on the flavour and/or recipe. In other words, from the 7-minute mark onwards, watch the goings-on closely - just a half-minute too many, and the macarons will overbake into rusks to choke a small brown dog. Also, I must confess to finding the evolution from batter to macaron riveting stuff to witness - if correctly mixed and rested, the batter will rise ever so slightly, with the smooth-skinned domed tops lifting just a little up and away from the gently bubbling bottoms, the beginnings of the formation of feet.

8.The removal There are scores of nifty tricks out there for removing baked macarons (from freezing the macarons with attached parchment in tow for a couple of minutes to "steaming" the lot with a little hot water). I find that using a silicon-coated baking mat such as a Silpat does away with the issue entirely. Using a baking mat also has the added bonus of giving you perfectly flat-bottomed cookies; parchment tends to pucker a little from the moisture in the batter - if this sounds irrational (and it probably is, given as once sandwiched any crease or crinkle is well-hidden from view), then by all means use parchment. In which case, it's a far better idea to peel the parchment away from the macaron rather than prying the macaron away from the parchment - the latter manoeuvre almost always results in crisp (and very fragile) dome in one hand, chewy bottom still stuck to parchment, and tears of frustration.

W, while as into his food as the best of them, is not into cooking. There are only a few things he will deign to step into the kitchen to cook. However, as select a handful as it may be, it's a handful that he does exceedingly well - I can't honestly think of anyone who grills a steak to such a precise degree of medium-rare succulence, or flips a more sublimely simple and utterly perfect omelette. For dinner on Friday, it was fondue - I won't go into the intricacies (which frankly merit several separate posts) except to say he makes a very very fine example, worthy of any trad old school alpine Swiss chalet. Given the richness and communal spirit of the main event, I thought it might be fun to end with some Swiss-inspired konfekt, in a mignardise-like assortment served on an étagère from which everyone could help themselves to whatever they fancied. Interestingly, while all were chocolate-flavoured and meringue-based, each had a very distinct character.

The chocolate macarons were made in lieu of the famous Luxemburgerli from Confiserie Sprungli (although the latter, while much like macarons in appearance, are much lighter in texture than their French cousins), for which unsurprisingly I couldn't find a recipe. As for the others:

Basler Brunsli

The recipe I used for this Basel speciality comes from Carole Walter's Great Cookies (Nick Malgieri also has a recipe in How to Bake). Almond flour, ground chocolate and cocoa are folded into a sugary meringue to form a stiff dough that's a dream to handle. Given the festive notes of cinnamon, cloves and Kirsch used to flavour the cookie, and the possibilities where shapes are concerned (limited only by one's imagination and cookie cutter collection), it's definitely a recipe I'm planning to revisit come Christmas baking.

Schiesser "S's"

From Nick Malgieri's Chocolate, in which he credits Stephan Schiesser of Basel's legendary Confiserie Schiesser for the recipe. A real breeze to make, in which a simplified Italian meringue is flavoured with melted chocolate. The batter pipes beautifully, and bakes into the most featherlight and airy of cookies.


A pair of crumbly nut meringue rings sandwiched with luscious buttercream, the recipe can be found in Nick Malgieri's latest book, A Baker's Tour, a discriminating tour of the world's greatest baking traditions and finest bakeries via a collection of fabulous recipes.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

French by Damien Pignolet ... Miam miam!

It's funny how things start. I think of that period well over a decade ago - when the noxiousness of college catering first compelled me to learn how to feed myself - as a culinary coming-of-age. And as such things go, what arose from necessity would soon prove to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession. The thrill, the gratification, the veritable hoopla of cooking, has outlasted friendships, love affairs, and countless other hobbyist dalliances. Or should I say twin obsessions - hand in hand with the compulsion to cook, what else but an equally voracious appetite for cookbooks? Many a Saturday afternoon, along with much too much of my student's allowance, was spent at Books for Cooks in Notting Hill. Some of the books I picked up then continue to have a special place both in my heart and in the kitchen, and for sure, not only for their sentimental value.

My tatty paperback copies of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and Richard Olney's Simple French Food, for instance, were and still are a profound influence. They bear all the battlescars accrued over years of loving abuse - butter stains, wine spills, fall-apart pages, and of course margin upon margin of furiously penciled notes. Through the lucid prose of Ms. David's succinct style and Richard Olney's languid instructiveness, I first furtively inhaled the intoxicating whiff of onion panade, immersed myself in the differences between a blanquette and a navarin, and all in all eased into the idea of learning how to cook French.

Today, these two culinary classics stand backs straight and heads held high in all their distressed glory next to more recent, glossier and fancier volumes in the "French" section of the bookcase. Being a closet Francophile (ok, not so closet), this comprises a hefty proportion of the books I own. And I'll be the first to admit that I've become quite the toe-dipper where these newer models are concerned, reluctant to commit the time and energy into cooking my way through a whole book.

Then a week back, I finally got hold of a copy of French by Damien Pignolet. Having had some fabulous meals at Bistro Moncur in a trip to Sydney a few years back, it's a book I've been eagerly awaiting since its release late last year. I knew it would be good. What I didn't expect was the scalp-tingling rush I experienced as I spent the better part of the weekend leafing through the pages - I haven't felt this way about a book in ages. One Post-it pad later, I finally gave up attempting to flag the recipes I wanted to try - there were simply too many. The collection of traditional and provincial French recipes, all wonderfully written in the chef's highly engaging manner, represent the exact sort of cooking that gets me all glazy-eyed with anticipation. Rare is the cookbook with style. Even rarer is the cookbook with substance. And rarest of all is the cookbook which possesses both in such generous measure. Damien Pignolet's delectable words are given lush visual context thanks to ravishing photography by Earl Carter as well as gorgeous design and layout.

If it's any indication of my readiness to happily dive headlong into French, the past week's worth of meals have all centered around a dish or two from the book - as good an omen as any that here is one book destined for all sorts of smears and scribblings, for relishing and cherishing, for actually cooking from (below, a sample menu). Even W, who typically leaves these things up to me, has gotten in on the act - aside from the blue stickies (mine), there's now also a flurry of pink ones (his) as a not-so-subtle hint of meals he's expecting (I say this with nothing but affection). But that's another post entirely.

Quenelle of Prawns

In his own fashion, W is the fussiest eater I know (again, I say this with affection). And these quenelles, a twist on the quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings) that are a specialty of the Loire, were by far his favourite (the very reason, in fact, that he was sufficiently piqued to pick up the book). Incredibly sweet and ethereally light (the prawn flesh is bound by a cream-based mousseline rather than a flour-based panade), the quenelles are poached in a rich prawn and fish stock before being thickly blanketed by velouté and sprinkled with grated gruyère. The final brief spell in the oven not only allows the quenelles to emerge an appetizing hue, but also ensures the little torpedoes get a chance to absorb the finely flavoured sauce whilst plumping up some more.

Provencale Fish Soup with its Rouille

I immediately gravitated to this recipe for the simple reason that the version I had tasted at Bistro Moncur stands in my mind as the ultimate soupe de poisson - intensely flavoured, without the least trace of muddiness that all too often taints lesser examples, the very essence of the sea. The key is extracting the flavour from a lavish quantity of fish, bones and crustaceans in the minimum of liquid - unlike meat stocks, fish stocks do not improve with prolonged cooking, which is a surefire way to extract off flavours. In addition, any excuse to go witness the magic of mounting a mayonnaise-type sauce (in rouille's case, perfumed with saffron and suffused with garlicky heat) with mortar and pestle - not just because in Richard Olney's words "no other receptacle from which to serve can be as handsome as the marble mortar", but because the ease of using a blender or processor comes at the expense of taste and texture.

Calves' Liver with Sage, Onion Soubise, and a Sherry Vinegar Sauce

My favourite of the lot. Whilst doing my grocery rounds, I spied some enticing foie de veau at the butcher's and immediately had the book's preparation in mind. Have I ever mentioned how much I love liver? (or for that matter, most other offal from tongue to tripe?) With the liver of milk-fed veal calves, preferably crustily golden without, with a pinkly tender interior that's verging on creamy - the perfect degree of doneness that the recipe will gently nudge you towards. To dismiss this dish, classically flavoured with sage, onions and sherry vinegar, as mere "liver & onions", would be to pass on a very good thing.

Widow's Kisses

Because I had made custard for ice-cream earlier in the day and had egg whites to spare, because I love meringues, and because I was in need of an easy mid-afternoon sugar fix. The stiffly whipped whites are flavoured with finely chopped walnuts and lemon zest before being dolloped free form on the baking sheet. Just before serving, a light dusting of cocoa adds the right hint of bittersweet.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Nip/Tuck: Foie d’oie mi-cuit au torchon

There's an excellent article from an April 2005 issue of The Guardian in which the one-and-only Matthew Fort says: " 'Wicked' more or less sums up foie gras' place in the world. There are those who hold that it's very existence is wicked, the method of producing it is wicked, the people who produce it are wicked, and the people who eat, by definition, are wicked. And there are those for whom foie gras, like truffles and caviar, is wicked in the Richard Fort sense of the word - wickedly tempting, wickedly good, a wicked indulgence and wickedly wonderful."

I'm no saint. In fact, I have an express preference for most foods that in the guilt stricken popular parlance just so happen to be variously described as sinful, decadent, and of course, wicked, be it in terms of the ethics of production (say milk-fed veal) or the nutritional front (say chocolate). Unconscionable and unapologetic, I'll go so far as to say I even know exactly the manner in which I prefer to commit my unregenerate acts of sin. In the case of fattened liver, goose rather than duck, and cold rather than hot (which is not to say I don't enjoy foie gras de canard or certain hot preparations).

Goose liver, because the delicacy of its taste (duck liver tastes more, well, livery) is the sublime counterpart to the delicacy of its texture - smoother, silkier, sexier. Served in a mi-cuit preparation that's chilled, because when barely cooked, very little of the fat (and foie is almost all-fat) gets a chance to escape, the fine taste and rosy tint are retained, and the resulting texure is utterly buttery, because when chilled, all the better to savour how exceptionally creamy it feels when melting slowly on the tongue.

We hosted a family lunch on Friday in celebration of S's birthday; as anyone who visits Chubby Hubby will know, foodie is rather too pedestrian a term to describe this lovely lady, gastronaut is more like it. Much belated to accommodate everybody's travel schedules, the menu was one we'd discussed quite some weeks ago - the foie course was an option, dependant on what ingredients looked to be available. Earlier this week, whilst actually shopping for moulard duck magrets, I came across some wonderful lobes of goose liver imported from Southwest France, not exactly the easiest ingredient to find in these parts; I'm not one to ignore signs right under my nose, and so the choice was clear.

The choice of recipe was equally obvious. No questions, it would be Thomas Keller's au torchon method as laid out in The French Laundry Cookbook. Adapting the recipe for goose rather than the intended duck foie (so specified in the recipe I suspect because that is what's more readily available in the United States through specialist suppliers such as D'Artagnan, although at The French Laundry itself, Keller exclusively uses goose liver in cold preparations such as the torchon and terrine), the flavour being less assertive and thus in need of a touch more salt, I simply nudged the seasoning up a notch.

The preparation is so-named after the cloth (torchon simply means dish towel) used to bind the pieces of foie into a fat cylinder before being poached. While not difficult, it does require a bit of planning - at least 4 days before you intend to eat. The foie is first soaked overnight in milk to draw out some of the blood, afterwhich comes the cleaning and marinade of salt, pepper and sugar, in which the foie needs to cure for another 24 hours. On the 3rd day, the foie is formed into a tight, compact log (you can use cheesecloth; I used some unbleached calico cotton pudding cloth, which has a much tighter weave) before being poached for exactly 90 seconds in a gently simmering bath of chicken stock, veal stock or even water. Needing to replenish my "stock bank" anyways, I made a veal stock using Keller's method, which requires an initial extraction from the bones and aromatics, a remouillage or second extraction, a merging of the two and a final further reduction. While time-consuming, it's a process that can be spaced out over several days - for instance, concurrently whilst the foie is being readied - and well worth the while. After the poaching, the torchon - having lost a little volume - needs to be reformed then chilled overnight before serving.

The trickiest part, which you will (depending on your constitution) either find immensely gratifying or infuriatingly fiddly, is the bit of culinary sclerotherapy involved in the cleaning - scraping gently but thoroughly across the flesh pink interior of the butterflied lobes to extricate as many veins as possible, locating the primary vein first before weeding out the pesky secondary ones running throughout the liver. Wielding a small sharp paring knife in one hand and a pair of needle-nosed tweezers in the other, high-tech laser technology it is not, tedious it is, but what better motivation than the refined texture of the end product? And provided you have been careful while nipping the veins not to damage the exterior, tucking the lobes back into a semblance of their origianal form before sprinkling on the dry cure shouldn't prove too challenging.

To go with the torchon, two things that, much like the stock making, make the best possible use of the time you're already setting aside to prepare the foie. Rich little croutons of brioche (I like Peter Reinhart's recipe in The Bread Baker's Apprentice, which amusingly enough is called "Rich Man's Brioche" for its extravagant 87.7% butter-to-flour ratio), and some sweet-yet-tart poached fruit, relish or compote to cut through all that deliciously heart-stopping fattiness. To fit the bill, I poached some pears in a Gewurzstraminer syrup spiked with verjuice and subtly spiced with star anise, cinnamon, and peppercorns, using maceration and cooking techniques gleaned from Christine Ferber's Mes Confitures.

Below, the other courses at lunch.

Crab Salad with Chilled Gazpacho Sauce

Inspired by a recipe in Eric Ripert's beautiful volume, A Return to Cooking - crabmeat, freshly picked and loosely bound by mayonnaise flecked with chives, paired with ripe avocadoes and a refreshing raw tomato-based sauce that's a vibrant shade of coral. For the gazpacho, Ripert takes the purist's minimalist approach by simply whizzing together tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar - this, of course, works a treat if you have access to heirloom varieties ripened to perfection, grown for taste rather than regularity of appearance or vastness of yield. I don't, so I took the liquid salad Andalusian approach which mixes tomatoes with peppers, cucumbers, onions and garlic (I like the recipes and advice in Anya von Bremzen's The New Spanish Table and Teresa Barrenechea's The Cuisines of Spain. Another good recipe can also be found in Sam & Sam Clark's Moro: The Cookbook). For the right depth of flavour, a hojiblanca varietal extra virgin olive oil as well as some good vinagre de Jerez reserva are musts. For the most velvety texture, pushing the blended soup through a fine-meshed chinois is a good idea. So is at least one night's rest, necessary for the flavours to really mature and marry.

Braised Beef Cheeks with Wild Mushrooms and Potato Puree

Another adaptation of a recipe from A Return to Cooking, this time a classic French plat mijoté in which the constituents come together into a harmonious amalgam thanks to a slow simmer at the merest blip. I used beef cheeks (the recipe calls for veal cheeks), a much-underrated cut I really adore. Having possibly worked the hardest in the beast's lifetime of cud chewing, the cheek is also a nifty package that layers tough muscle with generous seams of connective tissue and fat - braised in veal stock, the collagen-rich content of the cheeks ensures plump meaty morsels of an incredible succulence. Slivers of lemon confit (otherwise known as Morrocan-style salt-preserved lemons; I happened to have made a jar that's been curing for a couple of months to date) are stirred in right at the end. It sounds rather odd on paper, but makes perfect sense on hindsight - the zesty fillip, full of lemon flavour with none of the acidity, brightened what is essentially a hearty meat stew, performing much the same function that gremolada say does in ossobuco alla Milanese. In fact, Ripert uses preserved lemons in quite a few of his recipes much like salt or spice, as a condiment and seasoning.

Halsey Tart

From Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking, it's her signature spin on the Twix bar combination of chocolate, caramel and cookie, named in honour of Mr. Halsey, a retired candy maker for Mars. Whipped caramel cream hides a secret centre of creamy caramel sauce (I found it much easier to construct the tart in a tall narrow ring mold rather than a squat wide one, as was probably used for the shape seen in the book's picture). Chocolate comes in the form of the short, crumbly sablée disc on which the filling sits, the ganache glaze, and the crisp tuile.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Ispahan, Two Years & Too Many Eggs Later

The first time I tried making macarons was about two years ago, when I first laid hands on Pierre Hermé's Chocolate Desserts. Obviously, I hadn't done enough homework at that point. Or I would have realised two important things:
1) Macarons are tough cookies to master.
2) Chocolate macarons are the toughest macarons of all to master.

As for the unmitigated disaster that ensued - caused by my very own hubris and ineptitude, as opposed to the recipe's or book's soundness, both of which are unimpeachable - I not only wept with frustration, but also there and then swore off ever attempting macarons again. And I am usually not one to be easily dissuaded.

Of course, not everybody is culinarily challenged in the macaron department. Far from being stumped, some are veritable virtuosos. For happy tales of (and expert tips on) macaron making, be inspired by Clement - the blogosphere's very own macaron maestro - or Melissa's mighty macarons (to mighty, add marvellous and magnificent).

This tale, on the other hand, is 99% sweat and tears. Does time heal all wounds? I don't think it's so much a matter of healing but a matter of forgetfulness. For surely the smart of those unspeakably odious first results - clumsy feetless poufs that looked like a circus mirror distortion of the elegant, just-domed, frilly-footed thoroughbreds - must have become a distant fuzzy memory; why else would I have mustered the nerve to go anywhere near a macaron recipe again after all this time?

Then again, pertinaciousness and pride do have a nasty habit of manifesting themselves in an irrational manner. Once bitten, twice apparently not shy. In this particular instance, in a masochistic display of macaron bravado - "I will be the master of the recipe! The recipe will not be the master of me!" Albeit this time round, I've had the uncommon good sense to start with something other than the macaron of macarons, the king of kings, the chocolate macaron. This notwithstanding, I've just spent the better part of two days making batch after batch of macarons, every single one chucked down the chute bar the last. Taste, right; look and texture, all wrong. Chuck. Nice smooth dome; no feet whatsoever. Fold batter one turn too many; dense hockey pucks. Didn't fold batter quite enough; peaked poufs of meringue. Chuck, chuck, chuck. (For yet more examples of all sorts of sticky situations you might get yourself into, and advice on avoiding these pitfalls, see this thread and this thread on eGullet - you'll find almost all you need to get all tricked out, from "ageing" egg whites at room temperature for a day or so to waiting 2 hours for skins to form on the piped batter.)

I was determined not to run out of patience. What I didn't foresee was running out of egg whites. Then suddenly, just as I was resigned to the prospect of dashing out in the muggy weather to buy yet more eggs, with the last batch made with the whites of my last three eggs, the pastry gods finally managed a wicked smile at the self-flagellation wrought, the stars came into alignment, and it all fell into place. I rubbed my tired eyes, convinced I may have been hallucinating at the sight of those little pink babies rising ever so slightly whilst obediently forming the requisite little skirting at their feet - afterall, I hadn't really slept the night before, and not because I was in bed tossing and turning (when I said two days, I meant two days). A macaron puts paid to that old adage that appearance isn't everything. Here, looks speak volumes; the smoothness of the dome, the slightness of its curvature, the formation of feet - all are visual clues that indicate the texture will possess the desired interplay, that between an eggshell-thin crust that's delicately crisp, giving at the slightest pressure, and a crumb that's soft, moist and slightly chewy. All tell you that the batter had been mixed just so, and has thus risen just so.

Tremendously relieved rather than triumphant (ok, maybe just a little...), I've neither been more humbled by a baking experience nor more impressed upon the truism that practice makes perfect, learning a new lesson or two with each and every mistake made. The macaron fancy I had sought to emulate is Pierre Hermé's signature Ispahan - a pair of rose macarons sandwiching a cushion of rose scented buttercream crowned with raspberries and lychees. Having eaten more than my fair share of famously fabulous macarons, I'll be the first to admit that the specimens I produced were far from textbook perfect. That, I have no doubt, will have to be paid for in yet more sleepless nights and trays of eggs. Nonetheless, they were at least of a decency that I wouldn't have qualms about serving friends and family without feeling like a sloppy cook.

The recipe I loosely based my attempts on comes from the Summer 2005 issue of Art Culinaire (in case you're interested, there's also an on-line version), using it more as a template really rather than a straightforward recipe - there's a fair bit of reading between lines and filling in blanks involved. I had flavoured the rose components of the dessert using rose syrup (readily available here; I simply adore the old-fashioned packaging!) and rose water. The macaron and buttercream components tasted plenty rosy by themshelves, but didn't sufficiently stand up to the tartness of the raspberries in the finished dessert. To redress the balance, the solution doesn't lie in adding more rose syrup (which would make things too sweet) or rose water (which would alter the liquid balance). To this end, the next obvious phase in my plan of action, I've just found myself the perfect excuse to go invest in some Sevarome natural rose paste.